The art of town planning

Wrapping up a month at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, urban planner Josh Sirefman discusses the challenge of conceiving projects in a historical, densely populated and politically charged city.

lights in old city 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lights in old city 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On paper, Josh Sirefman may seem like a strange inclusion in a project that hosts five artists from various fields for a month at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, during which the guests present and participate in creative activities, lectures, workshops, performances and meetings with the public and focus groups. After all, the program, which is supported by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC), the Jerusalem Foundation and the Beracha Foundation, does cater to artists.
Sirefman, a town planner from New York, agrees and adds that his profession can involve some logistics that the “real” artists may not have to encounter. “I run my own business and last week, in the middle of this program here in Jerusalem, I had to go back to the States for a week to meet with clients.”
Then again, town planning surely has some artistic elements to it too. “I think it’s a lovely way to think about my work, even though I don’t wake up every morning thinking I’m creating art in the work that I do. But my work creates the venue for the artists to do their thing. So I suppose, in that way, there is a connection.”
Sirefman has certainly been involved in his fair share of venue creating, principally in New York.
Between 2004 and 2006 he worked alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg, developing economic development strategies to enhance the business climate in the Big Apple. He worked on a range of heavy budget projects, including in Coney Island, New York Harbor and downtown Brooklyn. So the man has obviously paid his dues and continues to do so on the grandest and definitively street levels of ways.
Despite the seeming professional mismatch, Sirefman feels there is plenty of common ground between him and his fellow guests on the Mishkenot Sha’ananim bill and, indeed, with the public at large. “I always find that, in any context, everybody enjoys engaging in the issues of city planning. For example, some of my colleagues here have tagged along to some of the things that have been arranged for me on this program. It’s interesting stuff. You’re dealing with the world around you in a very direct way. In my experience, people are extremely cognizant of the built world around them. I call it ‘the planner within everybody.’” Mind you, the world in Sirefman’s regular vicinity is, well, a world or two away from what town planners in Jerusalem have to deal with in trying to get their work done. On a prosaic level, for example, Sirefman – a keen road cyclist – wondered whether any bicycle paths had been woven into Jerusalem’s logistically cramped milieu.
“There appears to be no evidence of that,” he notes, adding that during his time here he has become more aware of some problems his Israeli professional counterparts have to solve or sidestep when trying to get their work done. “I haven’t looked at a single place, project or issue that is not entirely informed by the conflict in the larger geopolitical issues. It is underlying everything – certainly everything I have seen and have been trying to understand. It’s different from New York and from anywhere else I have seen in the world. It’s extraordinary. You’re in this physically tight space with these historical issues, and then you layer on the fundamental underlying conflict.
It’s by far the most difficult challenge I’ve ever seen.”
Then again, urban planning is urban planning, and Sirefman sees a lot that can be achieved here.
“Even with the underlying conflict, at the end of the day it’s a real estate problem, and that infuses everything. There are certainly things that are doable in, say New York or Chicago, which can be done in Jerusalem too, for sure. New York is also a very cramped city, and every inch of land has multiple interests.”
Sirefman is also a firm believer in the powerful positive impact that town planning can have on the life of a city and the people who live and work in it. “I have had some long conversations with [Hebrew University geography professor] Shlomo Hasson, and one of the places we have looked at is the French Hill junction. That was a very compelling place to be because you have a classic nexus of everything. You keep going north and you hit Ramallah; it’s one of the boundary points between east and west Jerusalem, and it’s a massive intersection going in every direction. Then you’ve got the light rail and two huge pieces of land there that are vacant, which I think are stateowned, and you’ve got a park on a third corner and that, right there, offers an opportunity to change the experience of going through that spot.”
Open spaces and how to utilize them to the best effect are elements that occupy much of Sirefman’s working hours. During his time here, he has been taking a look at Jerusalem’s parks and considering the various ways they can benefit the public and how to draw more people to them. “I find the way that open spaces are used here is very interesting. Someone used the expression ‘geography of fear.’ I don’t know if it is that people don’t want to be in open spaces, but I don’t think the open spaces I’ve seen here are particularly inviting.”
That, Sirefman feels, is an area that also offers regional bonding potential. “I could envisage an interesting collaboration between the Hebrew University and the [Bir Zeit] university I visited in Ramallah. You could have some sort of collaborative campus on one corner of the French Hill junction.”
Here he draws on his professional experience on the other side of the pond. “One project I kept thinking of when I saw French Hill was an indoor performing arts center just outside New York City, which brings people from many different communities together. I could see a great cultural center, a sort of mini-Lincoln Center, being created on one of those corners of the junction. It’s a great venue for building a cultural facility to sort of bridge that [politicalcultural] divide. I believe the work I do in New York could definitely be applied in Jerusalem.”
After a few weeks here, Sirefman feels he has a better understanding of the types of issues that local urban planners grapple with on a daily basis. Far from being daunted, he says he relishes the prospect of working with them at some stage. “Urban planners certainly don’t have an easy time here, but I think I’d like to have a go at some things here. I like a challenge.”